JJ Taylor reviews The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie

the abyss surrounds us

In a future where pirates rule the open seas, the fleets the shore are kept at bay by genetically engineered giant sea creatures bonded to their ships and guided by their trainers. You want to read The Abyss Surrounds Us. You really do. It has pirates, sea monsters, queer lady romance, lady villains, pirate queen moms, an Asian-American lead character – it’s packed with all the things you’ve been wanting in your YA. Honestly, I think most books could benefit from a good dose of lady pirates.

This is fantastic sea adventure with a queer lady romance that doesn’t pull it’s punches. The fights hurt, the romance hurts, and it’s all worth it. This sea adventure ride is full of twists and turns and they start right away.

Spoilers ahead! I’ll try not to give too much away, but it’s hard to get to the heart of this book without some spoilers.

Cassandra Leung goes through an incredible journey. At the start of the story, she’s a teen just about to go on her first mission for which she’s been trained on all her life. By the end, she’s surviving and thriving in a completely different world. She transforms into a competent, brave, skilled commander of a Reckoner, and a clever and savvy fighter. She sense of herself and where she belongs, even if it means turning her back on everything she knows.

The world of Reckoners pulled me in from the first scene. I was convinced our future could look like this, with condensed political nations in the wake of rising sea levels, flooding destroying whole portions of continents. Like all good speculative fiction, the changes in the new world don’t seem that far off a possibility from our current world.

We feel the loss of Durga, Cas’ first trainee, throughout the whole book, which is about the only way I can tolerate animal loss in a story. It was awful, don’t get me wrong, but it was awful for Cas and the loss remains raw and informs her decisions all the way through the story, even in the end. It’s not for the faint of heart, though, and there are more vicious attacks of sea monster on sea monster further into the story. Cas knows what it means to turn a Reckoner on other Reckoners, and she knows what she’s done in training Bao, the Minnow’s Reckoner, and in using him as a shield in battle. It’s an adult awareness that marks part of Cas’ growth as a character. Bao is never the quiet friend that Durga was. He’s a beast, and Cas bonds with him as she raises him, but the circumstances of their relationship were too forced, and ultimately too violent for it to last.

And that brings me to The Pirate Queen. Santa Elena is a terrifying villain. She’s not a kinder version of a pirate just because she’s a mother; she’s cruel, manipulative, calculating, and she has no qualms hurting those who hurt her. She sets Cas and the crew against one another in a myriad of ways, and delights in the outcome, even when it’s violent. She’s dangerous from start to finish.

And Swift, oh, Swift, with her bird tattoo like her name and her ship brand on the back of her neck like the sword of Damocles. I fell for Swift as hard as Cas does, but she also remained unknowable until the very end. I loved the tension of their building romance, their struggle to find one another on equal footing, and I was disappointed that the two proto-pirate queens don’t get an HEA. I had several theories while reading about how the book would end, and none of them were anywhere near being right. Cas and Swift aren’t together, but at least they’re not apart. They face nearly as many challenges as they did at the start, which has kept them on my mind days after I finished the book.

Go get The Abyss Surrounds Us. You’ll suddenly find yourself hatching escape plans for Swift and Cas, or maybe you’ll be rooting for Santa Elena. On the ship full of cutthroat lady pirates, you can’t go wrong.

Warning for animal harm/death

JJ Taylor reviews Split City Waltz (Morgan Investigations #1) by Ada Redmond


Split-City Waltz takes places in a futuristic London where society has become sharply divided, philosophically and physically. Above-ground in the shiny Metropolis live everyone embracing technology that tracks and reports everything about their lives. Below, in the old underground network, live the network of people rejecting constant, invasive monitoring.

Allyn Morgan lives topside, working as a PI after being fired from her position as security chief because of a mysterious event that left her with major cybernetic reconstructive surgery. Allyn is a plucky and smart heroine, though just foolish enough to do a favor for an ex who she already suspects is working her. She ends up in deep trouble, and the only one who can help is the hacker, Terminal, a resident of the underground. This isn’t a romance so much as a How We Met story, with Terminal remaining mysterious throughout. Though she earns Allyn’s trust through their adventure. The penny waiting to drop is whether or not they’ll ever see each other again after they resolve their mutual problem.

Split City Waltz has excellent world-building, crafting a believable cultural shift that split the city into two groups – those who are tracked and those who forcibly removed their trackers in an event seared into the collective memory. It’s is a fast-paced, tech-filled run of break-ins and general sneaking around.

The only problem is that it was 15,000 words long and I was expecting a novel. Shame on me, honestly, for not checking the word count, but this isn’t the first time I’ve been fooled by this shape of a story in this genre. Can we give it a name? The short prequel? A novellatroduction? It’s too big a world for a short story, because it’s meant to be introducing a larger universe, and in this case, a series. But it’s too small to be a stand-alone. You’re left wanting by design.

I was three-quarters of the way into it when I realized it was almost done! Credit to Ada Redmond for keeping me on the wild ride, but it brought me up short when I realized we weren’t getting anything more than the set-up for a romance.

Sequel-delayed gratification makes sense, since Allyn is still working through her issues with her ex. The majority of scenes were action, so there was little time for Terminal and Allyn to even be in a room together, nevermind flirt. Terminal does hack directly into Allyn’s ear, so that was badass and a great opportunity for uncomfortable intimacy, but Allyn’s mission to find out Who Burned Michael Weston who set her up kept us moving forward. All romance had to wait. For the next book.

Read Split City Waltz if you love cyber-enhancements, hackers, the brains and the muscle pairing set-ups (Definitely recommended for fans of Person of Interest’s Shaw/Root!), and world-building of a future society that seems pretty plausible. But beware that it’s fast and short, and you’ll have to be patient for the next installment of Allyn and Terminal’s story.

JJ Taylor reviews Just Enough Light by AJ Quinn

just enough light AJ Quinn

Just Enough Light by AJ Quinn (Bold Stroke Books) is a romantic thriller between two women working at an isolated Search and Rescue center in the Rockies. The setting is captivating, the romance challenging and satisfying, although the mystery suffers a little in pacing and some dots just don’t connect.

Warning for:  mentions of child abuse and rape, rape flashback, child/teen death.

Kellen Ryan is a tough, worldly, skilled elite Search and Rescue instructor who was injured in the line of duty by a mysterious bad guy. Dr. Dana Kingston needs to get out of the shadow of her well-known father, and decides to take her practice to the small town of Haven, Colorado, high up in the Rockies. Their first meeting involves a flat tire, the ubiquitous poor weather conditions of the setting, Kellen’s secret coffee recipe, and a rescue dog. (Bogart is a real hero through the whole book!)

The romance meets its first challenge when Kellen and Dana realize they’ll be working side-by-side on Haven’s Search and Rescue headquarters. What’s more, Dana has the unique challenge of an outsider entering a close-knit group of men and women who regularly risk their lives for one another.

Some spoilers ahead!

One hazard of the setting and the subject that bothered me was some of the rescue victims dying. It may have been a realistic reflection of  the dangers faced by the SAR operation, but in two cases, there were dead kids. While I get that not everything turns out OK in the field in real life, the deaths gave the romance novel a gloomy cast.

Still, the appeal of the life-or-death teamwork lured me in, and Kellen and Dana’s strong chemistry and real relationship challenges kept me turning the pages.  

The found family was the novel’s real strength. The richness of Haven’s community, the vibrant picture of the SAR center and the cabins were so vividly painted that I longed to vacation there even though I would have been too much of a wimp to even venture anywhere up the mountains. From coworkers at the SAR center to the neighbors in town, everyone came alive in the small, isolated community. AJ Qinn made me want to gain Kellen’s trust and make a home for Dana.  I wanted to sit by the fireplaces in the cabins and romp in fresh powder with Bogart. I wanted beer and wings at the local dive. And after it all, I wanted to be welcomed over to hangout with Dana, Kellen, and Kellen’s girls Ren and Cody. Each woman in the story, not just the main characters, have found their existing “birth” family to be anything from insufficient to actively harmful. In its stead, and oftentimes despite harrowing circumstances, they came together to make a family of their own choosing.

The FBI crashes into the insular world of Haven, demanding Kellen reveal who she was before Haven, so they can determine if there’s a connection there they can use to find the killer who’s after her and targeting other SAR teams across the country. I liked FBI Agent Grant, though I wanted to send him off to do some research or hire his own experts because he seemed to be flailing around in the dark for the majority of his investigation.

The investigation pushes Kellen to reveal secrets about her past that could have tied into the overall mystery, but ultimately felt forced. And while the reveal sheds light on her isolation, resilience, and nomadic past, it doesn’t connect to the overall plot as foreshadowed. What she running from all those years was an emotional threat and herself, not literal danger. I didn’t need Kellen’s past to connect to the mystery, but it would have made the two disparate parts of the story smoother if it had.

Kellen’s adopted runaways were great as windows into her secretive, sometimes cold and hard to reach character, but their own dark pasts also come up in an another odd red herring in the search for the mysterious shooter.

If you want to be immersed in the immediacy of Search and Rescue, give witness to very raw struggles for characters with painful pasts, and can handle the suspense of a sniper lurking in the snowy mountains, then Kellen and Dana’s romance will eat up your whole weekend. And hopefully you have a rescue dog like Bogart to keep you safe.

JJ Taylor loves stories about stories. She reads, writes, and chases chickens in the woods with her wife and their ridiculously adorable baby. You can find her on Twitter and on Tumblr @jjtaylor.